Any sports scientist will tell you the importance of rest for elite athletes but it’s often something overlooked by recreational exercisers or those without coaches in the know, however, rest periods are critical for a variety of reasons both physiological and psychological. So if the athletes at the top of their game do it why do we often feel guilty if we skip a morning HIIT workout or take a week off from the gym?
We have created a culture where we want to have it all and more often than not we realise that in order to achieve this we need to manage our time effectively. This can result in over scheduling and guilt if we decide to prioritise one thing over another, and usually, the thing we sacrifice is self-care. Rest, both mental and physical is an important part of self-care for our mind and body and shouldn’t be ignored. So why does it often get overlooked? We all have different fitness goals from weight loss, to increased strength or stamina and more often than not we (consciously or not) use the principle of Progressive Overload to achieve them. Progressive Overload is the fundamental principle for increasing measures of fitness such as strength and endurance by gradually increasing the demand put on the body. It may be a faster run or a heavier weight each session, however, if demands are increased too quickly it can hinder progress and lead to injury. When people exercise beyond their body’s ability to recover and don’t allow proper rest and recovery these training regimes can backfire and performance can be decreased. Conditioning requires a balance between overload and recovery. Too much overload and/or too little recovery is detrimental for both Olympians and Park Runners alike. Therefore, building recovery time into training programs is important to allow the body to adapt to the stress of exercise, replenish energy stores and repair damaged tissues.
It’s important to listen to your body so consider keeping a training log that includes details of not only the time, type and duration of exercise but how much sleep you’ve had, how you feel before and after exercise and how motivated you are. Look out for the common warning signs of overtraining such as feeling washed out, tired, drained and having a lack of energy. Constant soreness, aches and pains, insomnia, headaches, low mood and irritability and sometimes even depression can also be indicators. A decreased appetite and increase in the incidence of injuries may follow and some even experience a compulsive need to exercise.
Sometimes we just need to take time out. The saying ‘time is the greatest healer’ isn’t just true in regards to broken hearts. Our bodies are amazing machines that can in some circumstances regenerate, but only if we allow sufficient time. Top level athletes not only plan their rest days but also train in cycles broken up by longer periods of rest as research shows cumulative fatigue fades quickly in the first two weeks while affecting performance or fitness very little. So taking time off for a short period won’t set you back as much as you may think. In fact, most athletes taper their training leading up to important competitions, reducing the intensity and increasing rest and active recovery days to ensure they perform their best when it counts.
Building in rest to our training schedules can also help maintain a better balance between home life, work and fitness goals. However some people, myself included, are just not very good at doing nothing. I am therefore thankful for the concept of active recovery. Unlike passive recovery (stillness and inactivity) the active version involves gentle or light movements such as having a massage, taking a brisk walk or conducting mobility or stretching exercises. In fact, anything that enhances blood flow without challenging the body. Another benefit is that active rest can be sociable and we can use the time maintaining and building relationships, another area that is often neglected when we end up spinning plates.
Quality sleep is also important for our recuperation, health and wellbeing. In general we can manage with one or two nights of poor sleep, however consistently getting inadequate sleep can result in subtle changes in hormone levels, particularly those related to stress and mood. Research also indicates that sleep deprivation is linked to a decrease in aerobic endurance and increased ratings of perceived exertion so we may feel like we are killing it in our home workout when in reality we are struggling to keep our usual pace. Just ask yourself, do you really need to get up early for yoga before the kids get up or would you actually benefit more from an hour extra sleep? The quality of your sleep is also important. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) is the most restorative cycle of sleep and should account for one-fourth of the time you spend sleeping. However, we are unlikely to spend sufficient time in the cycle if our minds are racing and we have not fully switched off. This is why we can have a solid eight hours and feel like we haven’t slept a wink and highlights the benefits of ‘winding down’ before bed, demonstrating that it’s not just our bodies that need a rest but our minds too. Stop the cogs whirring by writing tomorrows to do list, banishing phones and gadgets from the bedroom and trying meditation, a relaxing bath, breathing exercises or some light reading.
So book that holiday, relax, and remember; sitting on the beach reading a trashy magazine is all part of your training plan!
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